Choosing Schools, Programs, Committee, Supervisors, Mentors

Choosing a School
  • It is possible. Take time to do research on a a variety of programs. Being willing to move/look in a larger region increases your chances of a well matched & supportive program, but weigh your own needs. Start with uni websites, but don’t trust them. Talk to students, and if possible faculty.
  • Evaluate the social views, expectations, and culture of your program’s faculty and students before accepting the offer to enroll. This will ensure that you do not accept the first offer you receive and end up in a program that is not a good fit for you.
  • Another point you should evaluate when choosing a program is whether it will help you network and/or get hired. Grad schools differ dramatically from one another in this regard. Ask if there are professional workshops throughout the year. How many? What do they cover?
  • Ask what work you be expected to do exchange for your stipend. It is normal to work as a teaching assistant. But there are wide differences In when you start teaching (do you start TA’ing your first semester? Or not until your third year?), how many students you will be responsible for each term (25? 75? 90?), and whether you'll expected TA outside your primary area study. Are their TA opportunities in the summer? Will you be required teach then? Or get paid extra?
  • Ask how much of your stipend goes to Tuition. You may be offered 10,000 a year which sounds like a lot but 8000 goes back to tuition.
  • Ask if the person you want to be working with is going to be on sabbatical. You don’t want to get to the program and be surprised your potential supervisor is not there.
  • Find out if grad students are unionized at the universities you are considering (and if all grads are included - at some schools TAs are but research assistants are not). Grad unions commonly bargain for a range of benefits you may not think to ask about initially. Reach out to unions where present - they are a wealth of information about grad life and surviving programs.
Deciding Where to Go
  • In the end you have to balance job after graduating, with student loan payments, with options. I decided it was better to take an offer where you have funding (less debt) than not because of how uncertain job market is. While pedigree still matters, the letters you get (PhD) are still the same. Some of the benefits of “pedigree” can be made up for by doing conferences, making contacts (even on twitter) with established faculty at larger/more prestigious schools. Commitment to scholarship can be shown through consistent engagement with your field. However, in some fields, only a few top departments are able to reliably place their graduates in academic jobs. If you are entering one of these fields, it is absolutely crucial to find out which programs at which universities are worth the risk, and which are not. Find out where new hires in your discipline did their doctoral work.
    • This is really hard calculus. There are so many moving parts. This is mostly true, with differences by discipline and student needs, etc. My general rule of thumb is: if you get into a top 15 program, go even if it means debt. We reproduce class/race inequality when our profession pretends that prestige doesn't matter. IT MATTERS. After the top 15, the math gets more complicated. Will you have the resources to FINISH? That is different for everyone but roughly it doesn't matter how cheap it is if you want to finish, have risk factors for NOT finishing, and are taking a huge hit on opportunity costs by enrolling. But, it is true that there should be a limit to how much you'd be willing to even consider borrowing. I think a rough rule of thumb is approximately one year's worth of costs because things happen. Hopefully you won't need to do it all. With student debt the most important variable is completion. If you complete, the risk is different. But, of course, its hard to know upfront if you'll finish. You can risk a bit more, the more elite your program (not always the same as the status of your university; in graduate school it's the program rank that matters most) and the job market for your academic discipline. Sadly, debt for a humanities degree is really inadvisable, a little less so for social science (barely), a little less evil in some professional fields and natural science. Again, it's not fair but it is what it is.
    • Yes! And keeping in mind time to completion, whether there is funding (grants/fellowships/loans) possible for an extra year (or three).
    • I would be careful about getting hung up on the MA issue, depending on your field/subfield & the programs you are considering. I am in history & a field where it is increasingly common for PhD programs to expect people to come in with an MA. My PhD program (speaking specifically of my subfield at my university, not the department at large) had a lot of people with MAs enter (I was not one), as it's been pretty common in the field since the late '90s; we all did the same coursework regardless. Period. My advisors didn't care what you'd done before getting to the program after they'd admitted you. The flip side of that is we had what amounted to a (very timely - before defense) 100% placement rate in TT positions & advisors who were generous in self-funding (through endowed chairs) grad students who needed it to fund diss research/finish, if needed. I realize this is rare, but I can imagine students being scared off that their MA wasn't being "counted." I am now a TT prof at another university, we "count" a lot for our incoming PhD students with MAs, but good luck finding a job, or getting prepped for an alt-ac/non-ac position.
    • If you have a program like that where funding is likely to the end, the extra time "re-doing" the MA doesn't matter. But, if you are at a less well fundedschool, a year or two gap at the end can be disastrous. The total time doesn't really matter, esp. since the schools least likely to count MA work tend to be those who have better placement records, but it is important to look at the whole picture.
    • And, if coming from an MA, what if any of your coursework is counted.
  • Do not put all your chips on a faculty job at the end of your PhD. Plan for other options. If you don't see yourself as an adjunct professor, then you should plan ahead by opening up your possibilities while doing the PhD, even if it takes you a little longer to finish.
    • This links back to the idea of asking if outside employment is possible. I worked full time during my entire Ph.D. I had advisors that poo-pooed my decision to do so, especially as it took me 6 years to finish, but it positioned me to be much more competitive for both academic and non-academic jobs. Plus, if you can reduce the amount of debt that you incur as you move through the program, you're in a better position to take jobs that might be a quality ideal but not pay ideal.
    • I cross three fields, and I had different jobs related to my area(s) of study in addition to some freelance work. I worked for the state for my first semester, and went back into the high school classroom the second semester. Then, I spent the next four years working full time at the university where I studied, including a two-year gig as a visiting professor (once I was around, they realized they could use me elsewhere). I was upfront about what I was doing with each boss, and was able to negotiate a flexible schedule to allow me to fit classes in my schedule yet still fulfill my work duties. This work experience actually led to multiple job offers, and I was told that my practical experience set me apart. That said, there's a heavy practical component to my work (working with K-12 teachers), so this might not be the case in all fields.
    • I had lots of friends who landed full time work at the university, too, be it as academic advisors, etc. Helps you figure out what you do and don't want in a university position. Plus, tuition benefit was a big plus.
  • Remember that you will have advantages that some PhD students from a higher socioeconomic group may not: these advantages include a lack of entitlement, willingness to pay one’s dues, openness about work assignments, availability for summer work/teaching, etc. Some people feel like they are “above” teaching a particular class, applying for a TT position other than an R1, working on literally anything outside of their research area, etc. Openness/ flexibility about all of these things is necessary in academia. Never be a doormat, but think of yourself as an eager junior colleague.
    • To add to that, often coming from a working-class background means that you had at least a part-time, more often a full time or even several, jobs while working through your bachelor’s degree, so you also bring with you the essential qualities of time-management, juggling multiple important responsibilities like work/school/family, and making the most of resources available to you. You are able to maximize the potential of any given situation because you’ve always had to do so, and all of this serves you very well in graduate school.

Choosing an advisor, faculty
  • Your advisor is probably the most important person in your life once you start a PhD. You should NEVER, repeat NEVER work with someone who you absolutely can't get along with personally. This person is not only your supervisor at work, but will have quite a good deal of control over your life and wellbeing for the next 3+ years, not to speak of the impact they'll have for your when you're on the job market. If you can tell instantly (or withing the early years) that they don't care about you as a person, then you shouldn't be working with them, no matter how famous they are. A good advisor can change your life and make you love your discipline even when you're working 60+ hours a week. You should contact potential advisors before applying to grad schools, and when you apply you should try to arrange to have a face to face meeting with people that you might want to work with -- Skype is also okay, if face to face can’t be arranged. It isn’t “cheating” to contact a potential advisor, it’s expected--at least in most fields. If you are unsure whether it is typical in your field, you should contact an administrator in graduate admissions at the school(s) you’re interested in, and ask them.
    • And don't bother going to a grad program that doesn't offer anything you're interested in. It's not enough to get in somewhere good. If no one there does anything you're really interested in, it's a bad fit. If you cannot write the dissertation you want to work on with anyone in the program, it doesn't matter if it is a top-ten program. Fit is really crucial to a good time-to-degree and overall well-being for you.
    • Meetings with prospective supervisors can feel a little like being on awkward first dates. This awkwardness is normal--neither of you knows if the other wants to take the relationship further yet, and you’re both trying to assess that.
    • When you meet with a prospective supervisor, send them your materials ahead of time (at least a CV, and if it’s possible/appropriate in your field, also a brief draft research proposal (1-2 pages) ). If you’re meeting in person bring hard copies of these things as well.
    • When meeting with a prospective supervisor with whom you’ve moved beyond the “first date” stage and are ready to talk nuts & bolts with, ask about what they can offer you in terms of specific types of support: an office, a desk, a computer, research funds, research assistantships or teaching assistantships, support from their/departmental admin staff, etc. Travel funding if you will need to travel to do fieldwork. These kinds of things are often good to include in applications for external funding, so don’t feel like you’re being demanding by asking what kind of support there would be--you will probably sound more prepared.
    • Also, ask what happens if your supervisor leaves campus, whether on a temporary or permanent basis.. Ask your potential advisor if they will be going on sabbatical leave within your the next two years, and how they handle their grad students during sabbaticals.Rank matters. All-star full professors may be hands off due to travel, but their support letter might have more weight when you look for a job. Associates will be more established, but may be in-between research programs. Pre-tenure faculty will likely want to publish a lot, which is great for you, but you may never be first-author.
    • One of the pieces of advice that I found most helpful was to look for potential advisors who are in their 50s, +- 5 years - old enough to have a wide network of contacts and extensive experience in the field, but young enough that they won't retire and/or die before you finish your degree. It's cynical, but very practical. To determine age, the easiest method is to add 21 to their college graduation date on their CV.

The Cost
  • When you are accepted at schools, funding is one of the most important factors, but so is the cost of living in the area where you’re getting the degree. You’ll also need to think about where you can do your best work. If you visit a place where you are accepted (always do this!) think about whether you can do good work there, be productive, etc. Do you need a better library? Less politics? Urban/rural preferences? Etc.
  • If you're going to live off your financial aid refunds, make sure you know beyond any question the minimum number of credits you need to carry for your aid to be dispersed. If you don't, and you end up needing to take a light quarter or semester, financial aid could send your aid back without paying for your credits. But you're still on the hook to pay it back, on top of paying for any credits you do have out of pocket when you're already broke.
  • Also, don’t be afraid to apply to the fanciest schools. Just because they seemed like they were only for rich kids, the Ivies often have the most money/best packages. When i was applying to grad school it didn’t even cross my mind to apply somewhere fancy but it IS possible and might pan out best for you in the end.
  • I would add to the above, that if you are accepted to a program that is a good fit for you, but doesn’t necessarily have top professors in your field, you can meet and network with such people at conferences/workshops/colloquiums/ or in professional programs like NEH and so forth, and they may take an interest in you and be willing to read your work and write for you--don’t expect it, but if they offer definitely take them up on it.
  • You are your best advocate. Don’t be afraid to cold-email faculty, ask to meet, drop by their office, introduce yourself. Take the initiative to sell yourself and your work.
  • Hear hear! Approach academia as an entrepreneur -- don't wait for opportunities to come to you. Go knock on doors, do research, get to know people. Sometimes having coffee with someone can pan out two years later. DEEP TENURE FTW
    • That said, approach with an ask or an offer - don’t just go to chat - have a particular question in mind, or some way in which you can help them/be useful to them. Don’t just expect them to know what to tell you.
    • And not just the faculty -- Get to know the secretaries and staff! Help them, listen to them, and know that they are excellent sources of information! YES--your graduate studies administrative assistant, if s/he has been there for several years, knows more about everything related to graduate study in your program than anyone else in the department. You should get to know him or her as soon as possible, and ALWAYS be polite to him or her no matter how frustrated you might be. The behind-the-scenes work s/he does for all grad students in your program is essential for your success.
  • We acknowledge this is extremely hard to do if you have no experience with it. Sometimes, it is easier to do if you can come up with “an excuse” to send that email. If you run a club or are part of a research group, it is sometimes easier to send an email as a “representative” of the group than to email “as yourself.” Getting this sort of experience makes it easier over time.
  • Approach the Graduate Program Director to introduce yourself early in your first term. Ask lots of questions about funding opportunities that will enhance your degree; put yourself on that person’s radar so when she has a scholarship nomination or an unfilled teaching assistantship position come up, she thinks of you.
  • Also make sure to introduce yourself to the administrator who runs the graduate program. They are not an academic and are likely to have much more common sense about payroll, know about who is reliable/decent/must be avoided in the department, or know which faculty member has a grant and might need an research assistant etc. Avoid whining to both these people but don’t be afraid to express that you have needs and are organized about meeting them.
  • Do not limit yourself to the department for contacts. Make friends with the library staff and librarians, and people in other departments.
  • Be super nice to the administrative staff and secretaries of the department you wish to get into! They make a huge difference.